By Timothy Gardner | WASHINGTON
WASHINGTON Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives will debate legislation on Wednesday to breathe life into the stalled Yucca Mountain spent nuclear fuel dump in Nevada, but critics say the project is hindered by the lack of an easy transport route.
Representative John Shimkus has proposed draft legislation to restart the licensing of Yucca Mountain, pending since Ronald Reagan was president, and on which the government has already spent billions of dollars for initial construction and design.
Former President Barack Obama opposed Yucca and stopped its licensing process in 2010. But President Donald Trump's proposed 2018 budget provides $120 million to restart licensing of Yucca and for development of interim nuclear waste sites until the Nevada project can be completed.
More details about the Trump administration's support of Yucca could come when a broader budget is released in May. Currently, spent nuclear fuel, which can be deadly if left unshielded, is stored at reactors across the country, first in cooling ponds and then in thick casks.
The Yucca site itself, about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Las Vegas, faces a cumbersome and costly licensing process that could take years to complete and questions from critics about how long spent fuel can remain without radiation leaking.
But actually getting the spent fuel from nuclear reactors sites all across the country by train and truck could be even trickier.
"Transportation is the Achilles heel of the Yucca Mountain repository site," said Bob Halstead, the head of Nevada's agency for nuclear projects.
One train route studied by the Department of Energy, known as Caliente, has been at least partially blocked by Obama's 2015 designation of a national monument called Basin and Range.
Another route, known as Mina, is opposed by the Walker River tribe, which withdrew permission in 2007 for the government to ship waste through its reservation.
Many casino owners and gaming associations oppose the transport of spent nuclear fuel near the city of Las Vegas, saying publicity about the shipments could harm property values and tourism.
Shimkus, whose state of Illiniois has more reactors than any other, says Yucca is ideal because of its remoteness. But the entire Congressional delegation of Nevada, where there are no nuclear power reactors, opposes Yucca.
The bill contains a measure directing the energy secretary to consider routes avoiding Las Vegas. But the provision is unenforceable under existing laws, Halstead said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)